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23 September 2020updated 05 Oct 2023 7:59am

Keir Starmer’s Labour conference speech lacked an inspiring vision

The Labour leader is committed to a progressive policy agenda but he needs to demonstrate greater urgency.

By Paul Mason

The Labour left’s reaction to Keir Starmer’s conference speech ranged from, “I’m quitting,” to, “It’s a bad idea to accept your opponent’s framing.” Either way, they didn’t like it. 

Specifically, they didn’t like the 26 times the Labour leader used the word “country”. Having a vision for one’s country, expressing love for it and having ambition for it were sentiments at the core of Starmer’s speech – but for some it was tantamount to a betrayal of proletarian internationalism.

For the pro-Brexit wing of the left, which spent years advocating the break-up of the global order, and months urging Labour to “reconnect” with the “red wall”, Starmer’s attempt to colonise and redefine the idea of patriotism (a word he actually didn’t use once) should have been welcome. But it was not.

Starmer warned: “We’re not going to win back those we’ve lost with a single speech or a clever policy offer. Trust takes time.” Nevertheless, Twitter was soon ablaze with complaints that he had failed to mention the Green New Deal, or water nationalisation, or student tuition fees, or, indeed, Jeremy Corbyn.

I want the left to play a strong, independent role in Labour’s fight for power. I want there to be a left as well defined as it was in the 1920s through the Independent Labour Party, in the 1940s through Aneurin Bevan, and in the 1980s through Tony Benn. But that can’t be achieved unless we understand the reasons for Corbyn’s failure, and the wider geopolitical changes and threats that lie ahead.

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Thanks to two books – Left Out by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire and This Land by Owen Jones – and Labour Together’s general election review, we have plenty of material against which to verify our own experience. The leitmotif of the two books is best summed up by the term “fiasco”. The 2019 general election campaign was organised chaos; so was the European Parliament election earlier that year. Despite the grinding and tireless work of dedicated people, the leader of the opposition’s office was a mess. The party’s position on Brexit was incoherent – an incoherence rubber stamped at the 2018 conference, with key Corbyn lieutenants patrolling the aisles, whipping up ecstatic cheering as the motion was passed. 

The Labour Together report, meanwhile, provides the data – which blows the Lexiteer excuses for the 2019 defeat out of the water. According to Datapraxis research, on which the Labour Together report was based, Labour lost 1.9 million Remain voters and 1.8 million Leave voters. But it wasn’t the lost voters who mattered most. It was the two million non-voters the Tories mobilised over the specific aim of stopping Corbyn. 

I don’t think either of the books or the report gets to the political heart of what went wrong: a top-down, bureaucratic leftism that never reconciled itself with the need to reassure voters on defence, policing, national security and – yes – patriotism.

Starmer, in contrast to the Corbyn diehards, summed up the problem in a single sentence: “Never again will Labour go into an election not being trusted on national security, with your job, with your community and with your money.”  If that is your diagnosis, then the prescription follows: build trust first and think about specific policy offers second. And that is the strategy Starmer outlined.

There are two responses. The left can take its metaphorical bat and ball home, retreating to movement and identity politics, and “anti-imperialist” good causes. Or it can be part of what Starmer outlined. The latter is a hard ask, because what sets the left apart from the social-democratic centre is not just policy but a sense of urgency and a different vision of the possibilities.

Starmer claimed that he could “see in his mind’s eye the country I want us to be”. And the list that followed should be studied carefully: well-funded and universal public services; huge investment in skills and a “plan” to create high-quality jobs.

In a single, terse paragraph he defined the difference between his project and that of Blair/Brown era: universalism, fiscal activism and state direction of employment policy are not a return to flaccid neoliberalism – they are a challenge to it. Likewise on climate. The words “Green New Deal” don’t have the same resonance in the UK as in the US, and are likely to be dropped as a label for Labour’s climate offer. But the commitment to spend what it takes to achieve net-zero emissions was there.

See also: Stephen Bush on what Keir Starmer’s Labour conference speech means for the party

But the left rightly wants more than this: a vision that can inspire and mobilise – and that’s what was missing from Starmer’s speech. The left is engaged with questions the Fabian centre-left doesn’t want to face, such as: how do we connect with the tens of thousands of young people mobilised around movements such as Black Lives Matter or Extinction Rebellion? How do we turn individual workplace struggles into a nationwide push for higher wages, better conditions and shorter hours? How do we inject urgency into decarbonisation policy? What do we do about the right-wing radicalisation apparent in many small-town working class communities? And, ultimately, how are we going to turn the fight against the effects of capitalism into a project to transcend it?

In the Fabian mindset all these questions are secondary to “getting a Labour government” (or council, or devolved assembly majority). For the left these questions have to be prioritised because we believe a Labour government without a mass movement behind it will end up like Blair-Brown or Wilson-Callaghan: swamped by the interests of big business and in conflict with the very people it is supposed to represent.

If we learned one thing from the Corbyn experience it was that fatalism, fear of change and, as the psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich once put it, “fear of freedom” are the obstacles capitalist ideology always throws up against left projects in times of crisis. That’s why, from the outset, I argued that Corbyn should adopt a traditional defence, security, policing and foreign policy offer alongside his radical economic one. The left’s tantrum about Starmer’s “patriotism” is a sign that many still don’t get it.

Labour needs to win 124 seats at the next general election to form a government with a parliamentary majority. This is conceivable after an economic catastrophe, corruption scandal or defeat in war, but not otherwise. 

Realistically, Labour has to win back the seats it lost in 2019 plus some of the promising targets in the suburban south and the Midlands. If the Lib Dems claw back some of their traditional seats in the south and south-west of England, that puts an informal Labour/SNP coalition on the table – which would in itself feel like a revolution after 14 years of Tory-led governments.

This won’t be achieved with policy, but it certainly can’t be done with a vision that’s still in your mind’s eye. It will be achieved by changing the atmosphere in hundreds of town centres; on thousands of Facebook groups; on the streets outside job centres; in the coffee queues, and in what’s left of Britain’s pubs. Only an energ

See alsoised and committed membership can do this, and that is why the left’s role will be crucial.

Even if Brexit is resolved (and without an EU trade deal it will be an open sore), Boris Johnson intends to fight the next four years on a narrative of “us against the world”. His patriotism is English nationalism, nativism and the casual racism Tories pass between each other with the after-dinner mints. That is why Starmer is right to contest the territory.

As in most Western democracies, there is now a solid constituency that will back the authoritarian right, no matter how incompetent or corrupt its leaders are, as long as they go on giving permission to be racist. We, for whom assertive anti-racism is obligatory, have to concentrate on winning the votes of others.

The key to that is radicalism: an equally strong narrative of destiny and principle that can reach across the dividing lines of ethnicity, gender, place and occupation, and bind people together. That’s what was missing from Corbynism and is still missing from a Starmer project.

The left’s job is to define 21st-century socialism and fight for it. As an internationalist I have no problem fighting for it using the language of country alongside that of class, feminism and anti-racism. 

But we need to run every proposal – for a policy or campaign or narrative – through the filter demanded by the Labour Together report: will it help the party win, is it being demanded by large numbers of people, are we certain it will not alienate large numbers of people, and does it sound doable without crashing the system?

See also: Paul Mason on how the Labour left must change if it is to help the party win

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